Tonight at 10 p.m. E.T., NBC gives what may turn out to be one last, best chance for the best new drama of the season, one that viewers have ignored despite its intelligence, heart and emotional resonance. No, I haven’t changed my mind about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, nor have I been drinking. For one night only, NBC is turning over the Studio 60 timeslot to Friday Night Lights, its sadly overlooked high school football drama, which has only gotten better since its debut.
The timeslot switch is an ironic contrast, because it’s FNL that has the real virtues that Studio 60 was hyped as having. Both shows are about the enormous social stakes entertaiment can have for a community–here, football as opposed to late-night comedy–but in FNL, the pride, pressure and almost desperate love for the home team in this down-on-its-luck hometown is palpable and real, without the producers having to showily convince you of it by hauling in every hot-button issue and historical reference under the sun. You’ll find no commedia dell’arte references in FNL, but its naturalistic, verite storytelling is what really smart TV drama looks like: that is, it’s smart without trying to prove how many trivia questions it can answer, and it trusts its audience to have the intelligence to sympathize with its flawed characters without romanticizing any of them. FNL shows, where Studio 60 tells (and tells, and tells, and tells…). And while Studio 60 prides itself on addressing red-state-blue-state issues because it includes One! Whole! Genuine! Christian! among its cast, FNL immerses itself in the culture of a religious Texas town–the kind of place where they work the upcoming ballgame into the Sunday sermons–without looking down on its characters’ faith or putting it on a pedestal. These Texans’ Christianity doesn’t make them paragons or hypocrites: it’s just a natural part of their lives and characters, and FNL has an easy comfort with it like few network shows ever have.
That’s the kind of show fans of intelligent TV should be supporting. I’ve taken a lot of shots at Studio 60, but I have to give credit to its fans for this: they genuinely, passionately want to support TV that challenges its audience. If they stick around tonight, they just might find that sometimes, smart TV wears a helmet.